REVIEWED BY DAN BRADY
Eloisa Amezcua’s From the Inside Quietly (Shelterbelt Press, 2018) begins with teaching. The second poem in the collection is called “Teaching My Mother English Over the Phone” and it traces a moment between mother and daughter in which the daughter tries to answer her mother’s questions about English:
she wants to know how a word can be both
a thing and an action like war and mistake
although I can’t put into words in Spanish
how I know the difference so I tell her I have to go
and I go and she goes I haven’t taught her anything
The book is full of moments like this, private moments of lessons and advice, a quest for the smallest pieces of armor that we can use to protect ourselves from the world.
In many ways, this poem reminded me of a favorite poem of mine, Judith Ortiz Cofer’s “To Understand El Azul” from her excellent 2005 collection A Love Story Beginning in Spanish, which similarly presents us with the worlds of two languages colliding and an attempt to wrestle them together though meaning. Cofer’s poem ends with an uplifting moment of revelation and realization. Amezcua pulls back from this hopefulness and brings us to the struggle of language and life. This moment is not a moment of triumph, but a step—an incomplete step even—in the long lesson of learning to live.
And that, I think, is the central question of From the Inside Quietly: How do we survive? So often throughout the book, we catch glimpses of family and friends in conversation offering life lessons, what to do, what not to do, how to do it. Wisely, Amezcua doesn’t give us the satisfaction and completeness that we crave because, honestly, that’s not how it works. In her hands, each poem illustrates that we learn how to be in the world through an endless series of these moments, advice we accept or reject, bad experiences, mistakes, and hard truths.
Across diverse and formally inventive poems, we see the speaker's knowledge building. In the excellent sequence “On Not Screaming,” the speaker learns from family:
This is how I was
taught to love:
to silence yourself
is to let the other in.
Then later in the couplets of “K ,” we get this from a conversation with friends:
You told me that falling in love
with someone new was just falling
in love with yourself over and over again.
We knew then that nothing hurts
as bad as nothing feels.
And in the longer, definition-driven poem “Faint,” as we walk through the word’s various meanings as a verb, adjective, and noun, we sense the shifting nature of knowledge. Meaning is tenuous; nothing is a certain path to success or happiness, just different, unproven ways to try.
In another sequence, “Watching Underword, Inc. Episode 3: Human Cargo,” we see theme of learning to survive made explicit through experience and popular culture. Describing a scene from the show, Amezcua writes:
Francisco, a people smuggler
in Nogales, says his secret
is training others
to hide and survive.
The poem blends scenes from the episode with episodes from the speaker’s family life. The poem closes with the speaker calling her mother and a typical conversation ensues, ending with another offer of protection:
…Before we hang up, she’ll say
Dios te bendiga, picture me signing myself
or kissing a crucifix I can’t bring myself
to wear. A blessing I don’t need
but I take it anyways.
Amezcua’s eye for these particular moments in which the mundane meets the extraordinary is a spectacular talent. Her poems force us to recognize that the extraordinary is made up almost entirely of the mundane, the two so very thoroughly blended together. Whether it’s going to a concert, calling your mother, walking to your car, going to a museum, sitting on a patio, or watching TV, it is those moments that make up our lives together. It is that sense of presence in and absorption of human relationships that builds us up.
This is perhaps best on display in the poem “Watching Law & Order: SUV in My Father’s Hospital Room.” The speaker and her father are watching TV together as he recovers from a serious infection.
what happened a fluke,
an accident that not even
the best detectives
could unravel, work
their way backwards
to a starting point
of which there is no
evidence, not even
a mark on his body
that says, Here,
it’s going to happen.
A lesser poet might centralize the illness or the drama of hospitalization, but again, like turning away from the realization of language in “Teaching My Mother English Over the Phone,” Amezcua resists that impulse. She grounds the reader in the familiarity of a ubiquitous TV show and marries the detectives' work to a daughter’s worry. Previous poems have shown strain in the family, but here in a moment of great need (in another poem she writes “Mother doesn’t have to remind me: / it’s unspoken, what we bear—/ need in abundance”), we find simple strength in being together, there for each other when we’re all unsure of the answers. The poem closes with a nurse asking the father questions:
…She asks my father
his name, birthdate, what year we are in.
He looks to her then me after each answer,
eyes wide and waiting for confirmation.
“Waiting for confirmation.” Yes. Much of the book feels exactly like that. All this wisdom, tradition, these counter-intuitive lessons, but what of it is true? What will really help us?
There is a certain swagger to learning, building yourself up. Somethings we just know. Other things we have to acquire our confidence in slowly. In the poem, “Texaco, Texaco,” the young speaker practices kissing on her arm. “I was good. / I knew it. / I was a natural,” she says. You can see the growth in the speaker across the book. Later in a poem called “Self Portrait,” we read:
I used to be a nice girl
but when the only thing
you have left of yourself
the filter with which
you move through
the world becomes impossibly
Finally, the book concludes with another “Self-Portait,” and here we see a harden self-assurance emerge:
in my own mind I’m a mirror.
I see everything
except myself. This way I can’t
lose: even when
broken, a polished surface reflects
whatever looks in.
Poem by poem, Amezcua creates perfect vignettes of growth, displaying an awareness of the intricacies of language and the human heart. Together, these poems are a portrait of a life searching for how to live, asking what is the best way to protect oneself, how to best move through the world. There is no answer here. There are attempts and ideas and moments in which survival seems either more or less possible. There is a satisfaction to poems that are neatly tied up, but there’s a different kind of satisfaction when poems are left open, when they don’t know, when they are evidence of life in progress—a more honest satisfaction, more familiar and more painful, but a great satisfaction nonetheless.
Dan Brady is the author of the poetry collection Strange Children (Publishing Genius, 2018) and two chapbooks, Cabin Fever / Fossil Record (Flying Guillotine Press) and Leroy Sequences (Horse Less Press). He is the poetry editor of Barrelhouse and lives in Arlington, Virginia with his wife and two kids. Learn more at danbrady.org.